Science Shines a Light on the Evolution of Music and Language

By Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD | Published 6/29/2019 0


Photo source: iStock

Music and dance are uniquely human activities that have accompanied human evolution since we became full-fledged social animals. And being social means communication.

Yes, language may have been the first on the scene as a mode of communication. But dance wasn’t far behind as a means of describing the world around us.

The language of music and dance is international and ancient

Tribes in New Guinea, Africa, and the jungles of South America have something in common. They all have dances describing the animals around them, recapitulating the hunt, and mourning their slow death.

You don’t have to go so far to see those dances. We once visited the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico where the Tarahumara indigenous people live. There we saw a young boy perform his tribe’s ancient “hunt of the deer” dance. His mother and aunts and neighbors chanted the story while his cousin punctuated the dance with a drumbeat.

In hillside caves of southwestern Germany, archaeologists in recent years have uncovered the beginnings of music and art by early modern humans migrating into Europe from Africa. New dating evidence shows that these oldest known musical instruments in the world, flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory, are even older than first thought.

The most ancient flute is dated to 43,000 years ago. The flutes’ design and studies of other artifacts from the site suggest that music was an integral part of human life far earlier than first thought.

The evolution of music

So, how are you going to show that music actually evolved along the lines of Darwinian natural selection? Here is an ingenious experiment described in Science by Elizabeth Norton in an article titled, “Computer Program ‘Evolves’ Music From Noise”:

“Bioinformaticist Robert MacCallum of Imperial College London was working with a program called DarwinTunes, which he and his colleagues had developed to study the musical equivalent of evolution in the natural world. The program produces 8-second sequences of randomly generated sounds, or loops, from a database of digital ‘genes.’ In a process akin to sexual reproduction, the loops swap bits of code to create offspring. “Genetic” mutations crop up as new material is inserted at random. The “daughter” loops retain some of the pitch, tone quality, and rhythm of their parents, but with their own unique material added.”

This process sounds remarkably like what happens in the evolution of plants and animals complete with mutations that allow the music to change over time, doesn’t it?

Related reading: The Fascinating History of the Color Blue

The study in PNAS

In another study published in the online version of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MacCallum and colleagues adapted DarwinTunes to be accessed online by almost 7,000 participants who rated each sound loop, played in a random order, on a 5-point scale from “can’t stand it” to “love it”.

In a musical take on the survival of the fittest, the highest-scored loops went on to pair up with others and replicate. Each resulting generation was rated again for its appeal. After about 2,500 generations of sound loops, what started out as a cacophony of noise, had evolved into pleasant strains of music.

Melody out of chaos. Musical evolution may arise from tension between the vision of the composer (in this case Mozart) and the listener’s taste | Credit: Saverio della Rosa (1745-1821) | Source: Wikimedia

Interestingly, “crowd-sourcing” the evolution of music reached a plateau of pleasant, Muzak-like “composition”. And this is where the creativity of the composer or songwriter comes in to push it to a higher level.

As composer, musician, and computer programmer David Cope of the University of California, Santa Cruz points out, the composer is influenced by the crowd but in unpredictable ways. Mozart, for instance, took audience response personally, but usually continued or even exaggerated musical traits that listeners didn’t like.

Similarities with the evolution of language

Here is an experiment on the evolution of language that is remarkably similar to the evolution of music experiment. Compare and contrast.

In a report by Dennis Normile in Science titled, “Experiments Probe Language’s Origins and Development“, Professor Kirby and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh “hypothesized that the transmission of a language from generation to generation played a critical role.”

To test this idea, they recruited volunteers to learn a fictitious “alien” language (recall the random sounds that were the starting point in the music experiment). Working at computer terminals, they were shown a series of words and the images they referred to. The words were actually randomly generated strings of syllables.

Each of the images had a unique combination of color, shape, and patterning. The participants were then shown images and asked to type in the appropriate words. They were also asked to produce words for images with color, shape, and patterning combinations they hadn’t specifically learned.

The words as given by one participant were used to train the next in line, a process called ‘iterated learning’ that resembles the cultural transmission of a language among generations.

Researchers tested different scenarios

Researchers tested different scenarios of that basic approach. In one, instead of individuals in each generation, there were pairs of participants who used the alien language to “communicate”, picking images from an array. (The pairs were separated and interacted via computer terminals so they could not point or gesture.)

The words they recalled after the communication exercise were used to train the next pair in the chain. Other pairs simply did the communication task – again via computer terminals – over and over without the “language” being passed to a new generation.

When pairs of humans learned the words, used them to communicate, and then passed them on through several generations, a compositional structure emerged. Parts of the words—the prefix, for example—consistently corresponded to color, and other parts became associated with shape or pattern.

Language became progressively easier to learn

Succeeding pairs found the language progressively easier to learn and use accurately. Pairs at the ends of the chains could even recombine the parts of the words to accurately label images they had not specifically learned.

When the language passed through a chain of individuals, thus skipping the communication step, it became ambiguous. One “word” could have multiple meanings. The pairs that worked just on the communication task eventually agreed on linking words with images. But the language remained an idiosyncratic pairing of syllables and meaning with no standardization or compositional structure.

To get structural properties and improve learnability, “what is really crucial [is] a combination of naive learners and communication,” Kirby says.

You might also enjoy: How Music Can Powerfully Heal a Physician’s Life


These experiments demonstrate how language and music evolved along the same lines. Through iterations of the selective process, a jumble of meaningless sounds or words gradually assumed a more coherent form that is recognizable by a whole population as a means of communication, be it language or music.

It took the creative genius of a Bach and a Mozart to catapult music to a higher level, and a Chaucer and a Shakespeare to do the same for language.

More by this author: What Can We Learn About Fatherhood From Science?


This post was first published 11/20/17. It has been updated and revised for republication.


Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

Dov Michaeli, M.D., Ph.D. (now retired) was a professor and basic science researcher at the University of California San Francisco. In addition to his clinical and research responsibilities, he also taught biochemistry to first-year medical students for many years.

During this time he was also the Editor of Lange Medical Publications, a company that developed and produced medical texts that were widely used by health professionals around the world.

He loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate knowledge and complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us.

He eventually left academia to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early-stage biotech company that developed products to improve post-surgical pain control.

Now that he is retired, he enjoys working out for two hours every day. He also follows the stock market, travels the world, and, of course, writes for TDWI.

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